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Ethiopia's reform agenda an opportunity for Germany

Ludger Schadomsky
Ludger Schadomsky
January 30, 2019

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has visited Ethiopia, a country undertaking ambitious reforms. Berlin now needs to provide substantial assistance to ensure their success, argues Ludger Schadomsky.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (r.) and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (l.) in Addis Ababa
Image: Deutsche Botschaft

On his third and most recent visit to Ethiopia, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke about the merits of multilateralism and promised Germany would support the African country in undertaking key reforms. Because, as he told DW, "now is the the right time." 

And he is right. History is being written in the Horn of Africa: After endless years of feudalism and socialist tyranny, Africa's second-most populous country appears to be embracing democracy. The cliques of politicians and business figures are losing influence. Yet at the same time, the fragility of multi-ethnic Ethiopia is becoming increasingly apparent.

In 2020, Ethiopians head to the polls. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wants the electorate to back his reform agenda. His critics, meanwhile, insist the elections should be postponed. Conflict seems inevitable, especially as Abiy antagonized parts of the security apparatus and military during his first year in office. Meanwhile, all across the country, old scores are being settled with brute force. Ethiopia, therefore, is at a crossroads: will it become the avant-garde of an African renaissance, or descend into bloody inter-ethnic strife?

Crisis of multilateralism

Progressive President Sahle-Work Zewde and her reform-oriented prime minister Abiy have made it clear they value Germany as an important partner as Ethiopia embarks on this transition course. The 2020 elections will determine the political future of some 100 million Ethiopians. And show whether Germany's foreign policy vis-a-vis the African continent has paid off. Indeed, demands for a more proactive approach by Germany have been voiced for years.

Read more: Germany making same mistakes in Compact With Africa

DW's Ludger Schadomsky
Ludger Schadomsky leads DW's Amharic desk and accompanied President Steinmeier on his trip to Ethiopia

But while Germany extols the virtues of multilateralism, the reality looks anything but auspicious. The African Union (AU), which is headquartered in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, lacks resources and has failed to take decisive action in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) trade bloc has proven largely insignificant. The US, meanwhile, is solely concerned with making America great again, while Britain finds itself preoccupied with Brexit.

Despite these trying times for multilateralism, Berlin must develop a foreign policy road map for Africa that actually deserves its name. It, in turn, must be embedded within a coherent regional strategy for Eritrea, Somalia and also Sudan, where thousands have been protesting in favor of reforms for weeks. Piecemeal approaches and only preventing European-bound migration must become a thing of the past!

Read more: PM Ahmed on tour to mobilize Ethiopian diaspora

Creating jobs is key

Of course, Germany must provide economic assistance as Ethiopia pursues its political reforms. Because if people have no work, Prime Minister Abiy's democratic agenda will never succeed.

The economic partnerships of previous years have been vital, and it was therefore right that Steinmeier was accompanied by a business delegation on his latest visit to Ethiopia. VW plans to enter the Ethiopian market, thus sending a strong political signal. But Addis also desperately needs "Hermes" export credit guarantees for its lesser-known mid-sized companies.

Read more: Ethiopia's Prince Asserate: If Germany really wants to help Africa...

Germany, if it is to deliver on its promise of taking a more proactive role in foreign policy, must soon decide how it will support Ethiopia. After all, the Chinese have already staked their claims in the region, and rich investors from the Gulf countries are in the process of doing so. And neither are pursuing an altruistic agenda.

Germany must act. Because, as the German president put it ahead of his trip, "now is the right time."

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